Short Essay on Interdisciplinarity - Anthony Bowers

Interdisciplinarity is a call for content.

We create disciplines of study in order to specialize, to increase the precision of vocabulary related to specialties, and to allow for a competitive hierarchical social structure to emerge within disciplines so that there is a credentialing system available to define what is good, bad, and ok. (Bourdieu). This is as it should be, but that specificity of language and competition for cultural capital concentrates the collective mind on techniques, on form, and on work that defines a classification. As a result, formalism, and mannerism are the inevitable result of disciplinary fealty, not just in art but in all fields. Although both formalism and mannerism have their advantages, they are also emptied of meaning and risk. They are the end of a process and inevitably move towards blankness and away from content. 

Why is it important now? In short, because income disparity due to technological disruption leads to new fields, and it is highly possible that this age of technological disruption will not end.

I am not the first to point out the potential link between technological disruption and income disparity. It makes perfect sense that substantial increases in worker productivity due to robots, computer networks, and other technological disruptions would lead to a glut of supply in the middle class workforce, driving down wages and benefits. As for a connection between income disparity and the creation of new disciplines, many of the distinct disciplines we recognize today were originated during gilded ages and then later codified. Take for example the beginnings of both photography and film which were equal parts chemistry, mechanical hobbyism, and journalism. Replace chemistry with physics and journalism with medicine and you have the beginnings of radiology and Madam Curie. Start with locomotion, simple engines, and mechanics, and you get the beginnings of the automobile and aeronautics with Ford and the Wright Brothers. Around the same period, combine linguistics, philology, natural history, and botany to see the ignoble beginnings of anthropology. The list goes on and on…

Now we are reaching  levels of income disparity similar to that of previous gilded ages with similar levels technological disruption to match. Google is the new GE, Apple is the new Ford, Facebook is the new Standard Oil and these companies are all interdisciplinary. They not only develop but they connect other technologies, they buy technologies and then use them in unexpected ways. These companies create content, usability, and something that matters beyond the confines of the specificity of discipline. They do it to make money but also because the technological advances demand it. Building a usable robot is impossible and even undefinable without a broader field to connect it too. 

There is a commonly held assumption that technological advances will normalize into a new stasis that will again support a middle class comparable to what we equate with the post-war American standards. Companies like Microsoft or Apple or GE may normalize their continued expansion or even contract, but the pace of technological advancement may never abate. In the words of Jonathan Crary (27/4, p.37), ”With a new paradigm fully in place, there will be innovation, but in this scenario it will occur within the stable and enduring conceptual and functional parameters of this ‘digital’ epoch. However, the very different actuality of our time is the calculated maintenance of an ongoing state of transition. There will never be a ‘catching up’ on either a social or individual basis in relation to continually changing technological requirements.”

As a result of this probable period of extended transition, it is possible that: 1) New fields will not have the time to codify before they are obsolete.
2) That the specificity of language gained by the creation of disciplines will not be worth the loss of content and accessibility that those new vocabularies imply.
3) THE MARKET, (the broad, large, abstract, ill-definable market) will replace the tastemakers now accepted in individual fields of discipline as arbiters of success and failure, thus reducing the need for disciplinarily to dictate distribution of cultural capital.

And what is left when there is no longer a discipline to define or further with your work? Only content.
Bruno Latour: ”Our intellectual life is out of kilter. Epistemology, the social sciences, the sciences of texts - all have their privileged vantage point, provided that they remain separate. If the creatures we are pursuing cross all three spaces, we are no longer understood. Offer the established disciplines some fine sociotechnological network, some lovely translations, and the first group will extract our concepts and pull out all the roots that connect them to society or to rhetoric; the second group will erase the social and political dimensions, and purify our network of any object; the third group, finally, will retain our discourse and rhetoric but purge our work of any undue adherence to reality - horresco referens - or to power plays.”